As President-elect Biden continues to select his Cabinet, the choice of Secretary of the Interior — and his choice whether to nominate the immensely qualified Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico —will prove a critical demonstration of the incoming Administration’s commitment to Indian Country, environmentalists, progressives and, indeed, Democratic values of diversity and representation.
Despite the conventional wisdom handwringing over whether House members should be appointed to Biden’s Cabinet, Haaland’s potential nomination, should not be a cause for concern for Speaker Pelosi’s thinned majority. Haaland represents a deep blue district. In both 2018 and 2020, Haaland won her seat landslide margins (a little over 20 the first time, a little under 20 this time), and were she appointed Interior Secretary, Indian Country’s pride would swell Indian turnout in the special election to replace her. When she was a candidate for Congress, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham ran in three cycles and won NM-1 by 18 points, 17 points, and 31 points. New Mexico’s first district was also the leader in voter turnout for the state in 2020 and the average margin of victory over the last five cycles has been 21 percent. Voters in the district helped Biden carry the state by 12 points. Even in a low turnout special election in 2021, New Mexico’s first would be a solid blue district for Democrats.
There is no one with her unique experience more eminently qualified for Secretary of Interior.
And with a Democratic majority in New Mexico’s state legislatures, Democrats will control the upcoming redistricting process and don’t face risk of gerrymandering or district changes. In fact, New Mexico Democrats could actually redistrict to the party’s benefit, shifting the state’s three Congressional seats from a current two-to-one Democratic lean to a three-to-zero Democratic lean.
Until her nomination is confirmed by the Senate, Haaland can continue her duties in Congress, providing Democrats an essential additional vote in the House in the early days as things are getting organized and Democrats are working to build early momentum. Once she is appointed, New Mexico law outlines special elections to be held inanely slightly over 3 months once positions are vacated, returning her Democratic vote to the House of Representatives faster than it will take to fill recently appointed Marcia Fudge’s Congressional seat. (The determinative special election would take, at most, 101 days, to be settled.) And even in the few months until her seat is filled, Democrats still retain the majority needed to pass key Democratic agenda items.
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In fact, it’s hard not to view the chatter over Haaland’s appointment as simply an excuse to undermine a candidate so uniquely qualified for this position. In the House, Haaland has served as vice-chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands — exercising oversight over the same agencies she would be managing as Interior Secretary. Managing America’s public lands, natural resources, and Indian affairs would come naturally to a woman who has both lived and worked in Indian Country and as an organizer for tribal voting rights. That’s not to mention that as an Indigenous woman, her daily life would be directly impacted by the Department she would head. And Haaland’s has strong experience in the business community as well as tribal and Democratic Party politics.
Like many members of the President-elect’s incoming Cabinet, Congresswoman Haaland’s appointment would be historic. Native Americans have never been represented at any cabinet-level position in our nation’s history, and her appointment would be a long-overdue start at representing Indigenous voices and perspectives in government. It’s also notable that her historic appointment could be politically advantageous for Democrats future mobilization of this critical contingency: almost every precinct on the Navajo Nation, for example, voted over 80 percent for Biden, arguably one of the central voting blocks that carried Arizona and ultimately the Presidency for Joe Biden. The high percentage and big turnout in Indian Country was critical in winning Wisconsin, Nevada, and Georgia- and will be critical in winning those two Senate seats there in January.
And while Haaland is a proud progressive, she has an impressively bipartisan record: In just two years, she has introduced more bipartisan bills than any other House freshman, and her legislation has received more bicameral support than any other member of the House of Representatives, period. More than 50 of her Congressional colleagues have endorsed her candidacy for the position, including 2 Republicans, and 150 tribal leaders expressed their support for Haaland’s nomination in a letter to President-elect Biden last week. She is probably the only politician in the country who can claim support from leftists like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats and conservative Republicans like Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Don Young of Alaska. An overwhelming majority of Americans also agree that it is time for a Native American Secretary of Interior: Data for Progress polling found that 78 percent of voters support nominating a Native American for the position.
Throughout his campaign, President-elect Biden emphasized often that he would seek bipartisan solutions across the aisle — and so has Congresswoman Haaland. She uniquely knows how to find the bipartisan compromise Joe Biden craves and understands the political realities of the record-levels of partisanship today in Congress. There is no one with her unique experience more eminently qualified for Secretary of Interior. It would be a big disappointment to the environmentalists, progressives, all those members of Congress who supported her, and the tribes Haaland organized and mobilized to help elect Joe Biden to overlook such a well-qualified candidate for his Cabinet.